Kill Devil Hill unleashes its 'War Machine'

New metal act features legendary drummer Vinny Appice, ex-Pantera and Down bassist Rex Brown
By Peter Lindblad
Kill Devil Hill's new S/T release in 2012
A sonic voyage of the damned replete with eerie, hell-spawned imagery, doom-laden riffs and apocalyptically heavy grooves, Kill Devil Hill’s self-titled debut LP is the product of fiendish musical minds. Priests might be tempted to conduct an exorcism for its creators, but ex-Black Sabbath and Dio drummer Vinny Appice – the guiding force behind the new fearsome foursome Kill Devil Hill, which counts former Pantera and Down bassist Rex Brown among its members – wouldn’t be a good candidate for such an ordeal. He’s not at all evil and there’s no demon inside him trying to consume his soul. At least on the phone he didn’t seem to be tortured by such things. His biggest worry was a distracting girlfriend causing him to lose focus and prevent him from providing an articulate accounting of the group’s mission.
Augmented by newcomers Dewey Bragg, the powerful singer whose huge vocal roar sounds as if it could swallow the earth in one big gulp, and guitar wizard Mark Zavon, Kill Devil Hill sets out to dig up the remains of early Black Sabbath and “Man in the Box”-era Alice in Chains on its gothic first album, which drops May 22 via SPV/Steamhammer. Reanimating their bodies with darkly contoured melodies and skin-piercing hooks laid over the solidifying cement of Brown’s thick bass and Appice’s punishing, dynamic drumming, tracks like the devastatingly serpentine “Rise From the Shadows,” the haunting “Up in Flames” and the truly spooky “Gates of Hell” capture the sludgy creepiness of Sabbath in their prime. Meanwhile, the aggressive, gripping battle cry “War Machine” could be the soundtrack for the inevitable faceoff between heaven’s angels and Lucifer’s legions. A wicked seductress covered in stained-glass guitars and garish lingerie, “Voodoo Doll” is a head-spinning den of sin and iniquity, and “Old Man” sees deep inside your soul and castigates your wickedness with a brutal chorus and bloody, chopping riffs.
Kill Devil Hill has arrived and not a moment too soon. A massive, gloomy fortress of heavy metal that ought to be sitting on a mountain surrounded by towering pine trees, Kill Devil Hill’s latest is a powerhouse record and a warning to anyone who would doubt the abilities of Appice and Brown to reinvent themselves. Appice talked about Kill Devil Hill and touched on his days with Sabbath and Dio in this recent interview.
This new project you’ve got is something else. Explain to me how Kill Devil Hill got started.
Vinny Appice: Well, actually, it was a funny way it started. We came off the “Heaven and Hell” tour and I had to have shoulder surgery because I was killing my shoulder on the giant drum set. So what I did was, right before the shoulder surgery, I recorded 13 drum tracks for this download thing on the Internet. And then right after I did that, this hospital called and said, “We can get you in early. Why don’t you come down and we can do the surgery next week.” So I had these drum tracks and then after the surgery, I’m in a sling. I can’t play. So after the surgery, I’m in this sling. And I’m sitting there and I’m going, “I can’t play. I can’t do anything,” ‘cause the sling was going to be six weeks and I couldn’t play the drums for a couple months. So I listened to the drum tracks one morning, and I said, “Wow, these are really cool!” So I called Jimmy Bain (former bassist for Rainbow and Dio), a good friend, and he came over. So I said, “Why don’t you play to these and do what you do?” So he started playing, loves it and then I got word that there was this guitar player, Mark Zavon, who lives close by to me. And I thought, “Well, this will be a good way to see how he works and how he plays.”
So I invited him down one day and I engineered it, laid guitars down on some of the stuff Jimmy did, and it was really taking shape. Mark had a lot of great ideas, and I said, “Well, this is cool. Do you know any good singers?” And he played me a CD of Dewey, Dewey Bragg, of the song “Hangman,” which is on our record. I had never heard of the guy. I loved the way he sounded, loved his voice, it’s modern, it sounds cool and dark. So that’s how it came about. And eventually, it didn’t work out with Jimmy. We tried a couple other people, and I heard Rex was looking for something, so I knew Rex from way back, and I called Rex and messengered him some of the songs. He loved ‘em, played bass on ‘em on the demos and we thought, “This is really cool. This is really taking shape now.” We were able to get a deal with those demos, and Rex committed to the band. And we started grouping everybody’s ideas together, writing more songs, and then that’s the way it came together in a pretty interesting way. It all started with some drums.
Some of the songs you’ve been involved with over the years, have they started with drums or is that an unusual situation?
VA: Well, “War Machine” … it’s almost the real drum track that I played. I played that tempo, and I went, “Boom.” I started with a fill … the fill is not on the record, it just slams in. And those parts, I would play 16 bars and then I would change. And then, I would go back to the feel. And I was playing it in my head, like it was a song. And a lot of “War Machine” is almost identical to the track I played originally. And a couple of them are like that. Some of the rest are newer that we wrote later on. So it was interesting that they were written with the drums.
Talking about your past with Rex, I was reading an interview with him in Revolver magazine about him and Phil [Anselmo, from Pantera] would sit behind Geezer Butler’s rig on the Dehumanizer tour and watch you drum while smoking a joint. Do you remember much of that at all?
VA: Yeah, it was Black Sabbath and Pantera. We played a number of festivals together and they would go on, and then we’d go on. And they’d all be sitting by the side of the stage or behind Geezer’s amp, and they would watch us play because they were big Sabbath fans. And he said, “I was watching you, man, beating the sh*t out of those drums.” And they were always there; Phil was great. They loved Sabbath, so it was cool and it gave us energy. There they are over there watching us play, so we got off on it, too. It was pretty funny.
What were your impressions of Pantera back then?
VA: They were just bad-ass, man – a powerful, strong band. So much energy … they just slammed it to the wall. So I enjoyed them and I watched them, too, before we went on those shows when we arrived on time, I was watching Pantera. So, they were awesome, man … absolutely – slamming it to the wall.
Did you have any inkling back then that you could one day work with Rex or any of those guys?
VA: I never thought about it. I just liked the way Rex played. That’s one thing that stood out was his sound. It was so big and hip and really the foundation under the band. I always liked the way he played. He reminded me of someone between Geezer and Jimmy Bain. And I loved the sound, and I never thought that we’d play together. I just thought, well, it’s a little bit different types of music, you know – good friends, good buddies, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I admired the way they played, and especially Rex.
And then you guys reconnected a bit on the “Heaven and Hell” tour, which Down played on.
VA: Yeah, Down opened for us. We played a lot of dates together, and we went down to Australia, and it was cool. It was cool hanging out. It was a great tour and successful, so it was cool hanging out with friends and being out on tour for that long. There was even talk of, at one time after Ronnie passed away, if we were going to continue, what singers we could use. Phil’s name popped up as a possibility to make another record, but that never happened.
Wow, that would have been something.
VA: Yeah, great to think of it now.
Just before the interview, I was listening to the new album a bit and thinking about Dehumanizer, and I went back and listened to that a little bit. I saw a few similarities. Do you see anything in Kill Devil Hill that relates to Dehumanizer?
VA: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying … like the guitars, very heavy and very heavy riffs, and the drum sounds are a little bigger on Dehumanizer. There are some similarities to it. And I think there are some similarities with the old style Sabbath, the early Sabbath. And then there’s a little bit of Dio in there, too. Dewey is a very melodic singer, very heavy and dark. But then he hits on those melodies. Some of them remind me of what Ronnie had done. So it was kind of a combination of those things, and some of it’s like Alice in Chains. It reminds me a lot of Alice in Chains and Pantera. There are a lot of little ingredients in there, you know. And it wasn’t like we sat there and said, “Let’s do this so that it sounds like this.” It just happened that way with all the bands and the combination of them.
You mentioned the Alice in Chains comparison that’s come up a bit in regard to Kill Devil Hill. I know Rex was saying in Revolver that he thought Kill Devil Hill was much heavier. That definitely seems to come across in the record.
VA: Well, it does, because the thing with Alice in Chains is, the drums never really played anything more than the feel of the song. I don’t play that way. I play with the riffs more. I think the parts with Alice in Chains … they’re a heavy band, but the harmonies sound more Alice in Chains-y than the band. The band is a little bit heavier, a little more aggressive, but the harmonies in the vocals are what remind you a little bit of Alice in Chains.
Talking about the harmonies and the guitar player, Mark, maybe you haven’t exactly discovered this talent, but as big as your names are – those of yours and Rex – it does seem like he and Dewey are really strong up-and-coming musicians I would think.
Vinny Appice 2012
VA: Yeah, you’re right. When I first got together with Mark and he plugged into … we didn’t have any amps, he plugged into the sound board. I just had a little studio. He plugged in with some pedal things and he got a great sound. And I went, “Yeah, this is cool.” And with Mark, he reminds me of Tony Iommi because he plays good chords, heavy chords. A lot of players are into shredding all the time. They don’t learn how to play chords and the feel, steady, and to make it sound big and heavy. Mark did that I noticed and then we played together live and I noticed that, too. And he’s a great guitar player and he can shred, man. He can shred with the best of them. He’s a killer guitar player, and he’s a great guy. That’s what was important. I was looking for somebody I could work with first. And then he came down, and I went, “Man, he’s f**king awesome.” He’s a great guy, he became a great friend and he’s so into it and so passionate about music, you know. And that could be because he’s always dreamed about something bigger and this is his opportunity to shine. So it just worked out great, and then when we went to do the album, he wanted to do different things on the guitar – some of them I didn’t agree with, but I let him do them, and the outcome was incredible. He did a great job, all those doubling things and effects.
And Dewey … the same thing. He was a guy where all we had to do was come up with some cool, heavy riffs, and we give ‘em to Dewey and he comes up with these great little hooks. And if he didn’t, we’d help him. Mark was a great help, working with the vocals and lyrics, and even me … I’d say, “Why don’t you try something like this, something simple” and so we all threw in together, but Dewey was mainly able to come up with all this stuff. And he looks the part. He’s real … yeah, it’s amazing, and he’s got a great sound to his voice. It was just exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want an ‘80s singer or anything like that. It was supposed to be something new, with some roots to it. So, yeah, it just happened to be assembled, and that’s why I like the way the band came together. It’s not a paper band like, “Let’s get this guy from this band, and this guy from this band,” and it looks good on paper and then you do an album or two and then the band breaks up. It came together and fell together like a band should. And Rex and I want to keep it going. We want to build a career with this band. We think it’s a great band. We have fun together, we play live together, it’s fun, we jam and musically it’s awesome.
That, I think, is great news to everybody because the new album is really something. I just reviewed it and I was blown away by it.
VA: Yeah, and you know, it was produced by us and Warren Riker (Down, Corrosion of Conformity, Sublime, Cathedral). We had a lot of problems along the way, but we sorted them out and we needed somebody to mix it. It was supposed to be mixed and it wasn’t mixed on time, and we were kind of stuck. And then somehow, Rex mentioned this Jay Rustin guy, and we went, “Whoa, look at the credits that Jay Rustin has,” and he just did the last Anthrax release, so we met with Jay and got to know him and he just made it sparkle. And he just gave the whole thing this great … he took all the recordings of all the tracks and just made it happen, made it sonically sound really thick, a nice-sounding record. Jay did a great job. Now if we could only pay him (laughs). If could only make some more money and pay him, that would be great.
I was wondering if you could touch on some of the individual songs on the album. You talked about “War Machine” and that’s such a great opener, really heavy, it’s got that kind of hornets’ nest of guitars that it kicks up. It sounds like that was one of the first songs that you came up with.
VA: Yeah, it was one of the first songs. Like I said, that was a drum track – “boom dap boom, boom dap boom.” That whole thing was a drum track. And then Mark came over and started playing some stuff to it, and then he said, “Let me take it home and work on it.” And then he took it home, and the next day, he put all these guitars on, which was basically the song. And it was like, “F**k man, that kicks ass.” And then Dewey got to it and wrote the lyrics … I think between Mark and Dewey, they wrote lyrics. I’m not sure who wrote that one. And then the melody was there, Dewey came up with the melody and it just came together, like “Whoa, this kicks butt.” So that was a burner, out the door. Great opener, like you said.
I wanted to get your thoughts, too, on “Gates of Hell” and “Rise From the Shadows.” “Gates of Hell” was kind of unusual. In a weird way, it reminded me of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a real twisted bit of psychedelia.
VA: Yeah, well, you know what? As far as lyrically and stuff, I don’t get into that. It’s the weirdest thing: I don’t hear lyrics. I hear them, but I don’t follow them in the song. And I played with Dio for years and I was with Ronnie for years, and he’d say, “Here’s what I’m trying to say in this song.” And I didn’t hear it until he told me what they were. So he would tell me the lyrics, and he would do that sometimes. “Here I’m doing this and there I’m doing that …” But I don’t hear lyrics. I’m so honed in on the riffs and the band, and I see songs differently, which is good because that’s not my thing. I’m good at what I do. So lyrically, I kind of know where it’s going and the feel, and I hear the words, but I don’t know exactly what he’s saying. And that’s just the way my ears hear. I mean, “Rainbow in the Dark” … how many times did I play that song – three million times or something – and I still don’t know what it’s about. I know some of the lyrics, but that’s about it.
So, “Gates of Hell” was something Mark and I started jamming on. He did these things and had some verses, and the next day we came in and listened to it, and we did this and there were some parts that were missing. Eventually, we added another part, and we thought, “Don’t go to the chorus after the first verse” because it’s such a giveaway to go the chorus. Let’s build it up and then it hangs and drops. And then they’re listening and “Oh sh*t,” now there’s the second verse. And it’s the second verse that goes to the chorus, so it was different things like that. I was just aware when we made the record and wrote these songs to keep … the only thing I thought of was to keep the listener interested by not doing too many verses or [making] the verses long. Ronnie always said, “You don’t want them to figure out where the next part of the song’s going to go.” And you want to keep a little bit of guessing going on in there. Instead of the song going right in on one, you might have done three bars instead of four, so when it comes in, it’s unexpected. So that’s the only thing I was aware of. For some of them that went long, we shortened things up a little bit or [came up with] odd changes or odd fills, a couple fills that are like three bars. See, I like all that weird sh*t and messing things up – that’s my drumming (laughs). “Gates of Hell” is a real moody son of a bitch, and Dewey does some great vocals in it and a great guitar solo and Rex’s bass goes to a dark place.
It’s very sinister. It definitely reminds me of that first Sabbath album. It’s kind of disturbing and unsettling.
VA: The other one, “Up in Flames,” you know we had that. Me and Mark jammed on that, and then similar to “Gates of Hell,” we wanted to keep it up a little more, so on that one, I actually thought of Ringo. And I thought, “Ringo would play this simple” – doo bap, doo doo bap, doo bap, doo doo doo doo [descending] – so I just kept it simple. It was kind of a Ringo effect. I thought Ringo played great, you know.
Was Ringo’s drumming influential for you?
VA: No, not really. It wasn’t influential, but now, when I listen to the Beatles’ stuff, when somebody plays parts of songs and not just beats, then I’m very impressed by that. Anybody can play the beats of a song. When you listen to Beatles songs, there’s a stop, there’s a part where Ringo just plays the toms, there are parts where he maybe just plays the bells … he’s so creative. And that’s what Bill Ward did in the early Sabbath stuff. He didn’t just play beats, he played parts. And that’s impressive when drummers create parts to play musically instead of trying to shred.
As far as playing together with Rex, what do you like about playing with him the most?
VA: It’s cool. First, I love the sound. It’s a giant, giant sound. And then, he doesn’t play busy. You know, he plays solid, and it allows me to go crazy sometimes. So Rex is not a real busy bass player. He’ll play some licks here and there, but then he’ll lay it down. He lays a great foundation and then I’m able to lay into that foundation and I’m able to go a little crazy with crazy fills and stuff, like I’ve always done my whole life. So it works well together, and then when we get down a riff, I’m just locking in with him and it’s huge. And then I just beat the sh*t out of the drums as much as I can and he plays like that, too. The cool thing is we’re both in sync, you know.
You mentioned that you and Rex want to make this a career band. Where do you envision it going?
VA: Hopefully, to a higher level. I won’t say the top, that’s hard. But the fun thing is, it is fun and it’s fun to create. So to have fun and have success on top of it is wonderful. So we hope to build it and tour bigger tours, build up a great fan base and make great music. I’ve done it before, but not with my own band. So this is totally something new for me.
Do you feel a greater sense of ownership with this group than past bands you’ve been with?
VA: Oh, absolutely. Just the way it was with Sabbath and Dio, they’d say, “You’re rehearsing from here to here, flying out here and going to the gigs. Here’s the tour.” Everything was laid out with decisions. Musically, with Dio I was involved more with the ideas and some of the songwriting. And then Sabbath, you know, it was mainly just ideas, ‘cause it was Sabbath, you know? I’d always put my opinion in with some of the things and try to be a part of the band that way. And this is totally different. There are a lot of decisions to be made. I never did this before, so now it is like, when the band makes money, you make money. When the band loses money, you’re part of the loss. So it’s a whole different animal, and I’ve never really done it this way before. It’s like owning your own company. It’s a lot more work.
You mentioned songwriting. Tell me some of the things you learned from your Sabbath experience and with Ronnie that crop up on this record.
VA: Well, like I said from Ronnie, it was try the unexpected. You don’t want the listener to go, “Ah, now I know what’s going into the next part,” and it does. It’s like sometimes when you hear records, they go back and forth, with something in between that. It might be an odd bar or something, or an odd change, a couple chords or hangs, or whatever it is. And then it goes to something that’s anticipated. So a lot of that stuff came from Ron, and Sabbath was more of watching Tony and Geezer play, how they played and how at times Geezer sometimes followed Tony on the riffs and then he wouldn’t follow Tony on the riffs. Tony would be riffing and Geezer would play something else to counter it. And I learned from Sabbath that there was no rest between the songs (laughs). It was like some of the songs were just heavy riffs that would breathe a lot. And in Black Sabbath there was no reason to have to go impress anybody ‘cause they were Sabbath! They breathed and they lived and they crawled. And it was interesting. Sabbath was more just observing stuff. “Why is Tony going there?” Things like that. And then you get it. “Oh, man. That’s weird.” And some of the harmonies Geezer and Tony would play – different notes, changes in chords and sh*t … like, “Whoa!”
How long did it take you to feel like you fit in with Sabbath?
VA: Well, when on the first tour for Heaven and Hell, I fell into that and it was just basically they wanted to continue the tour. So I came in and learned the songs quick, and they were happy with it. They were happy with the feel, and as it went along, there were very few things that were said. Like I never sat down with the whole band and discussed musically what we would do. It was like they just liked the way I played. And only very minor things, like Tony would say it would be interesting to do this or do this a little more open … there wasn’t a lot of stuff. So, I assumed they liked the way I played. And as it went along, when I didn’t have to think about parts of the songs, I became more “Vinnie” in the songs and they liked it. So probably midway through that tour, I felt like, “Yeah, it’s cool.” And then when we did “Mob Rules,” as we wrote “Mob Rules” and recorded it … because we did that before the album released. There are two versions of “Mob Rules,” one that’s for the “Heavy Metal” movie, and when I heard that, I thought, “Oh sh*t, this rocks.” I heard the sound through it, and I thought, “I’m going to fit in real well.”
I know you did some Kill Devil Hill shows in April of 2011, and I was going to ask you what the plans were to tour and what the crowd reaction was like back then.
VA: Yeah, when we toured last year, there wasn’t a big buzz on the band. We weren’t doing interviews. The record wasn’t even … it was recorded, it wasn’t mixed. So we just went out and did the tour, and people in some of the places knew me and Rex were in a band, so they came down. Some of the places didn’t know who the hell was in the band. Some of the places were full, some of the places were … well, there weren’t a lot of people there. But no matter where we played, we started playing and people came to the front and then they took the songs … the thing about these songs is they’re very grasp-able. The riffs are there and they repeat and the harmonies and the vocals. It’s got hooks – there’s a lot of hooks – and it’s heavy and it’s easy to grasp.
Can you imagine when Rush went out for the first time, playing some of those songs and nobody had heard them, but they repeated one riff and the songs are six minutes long. Our songs are more grasp-able, where people can say, “Oh yeah, I get it.” And then when we go to the second chorus, then they get it. It went over well, man, because people had never heard these songs. Now we’ve noticed there are more people at the shows because the re’s a buzz and they’re all waiting for the album, but they grasp these songs. They get it. It’s cool. They get the vibe of the band.


  1. Disco DevilJune 20, 2012

    What a colorful, insightful interview with one of the greats. Genius attracts genius, and Rex Brown also played on Jerry Cantrell's first solo album... If KDH can pull off a hybrid of Alice in Chains, Sabbath, and Pantera, without relying too much on the past, that would be godly (not to set myself or anyone up for disappointment...). I will definitely check this out.

  2. I think you'll enjoy it. It's really gothic sounding, and I don't mean that they sound like the Cure or anything. It grooves and it's heavy, but really melodic. The guitarist is good at creating riffs and the singer has a big voice.